Secular Jewishness in a Multicultural World
Meet Sholem Community Education Director Hershl Hartman
By Regan Kibbee
Hershl Hartman has been providing a secular Jewish education to kids and adults in the Sholem Community for more than 50 years. Rather than Judaism, his focus is “Jewishness.”
Hartman began his Jewish education in the Bronx at age 5. He studied Jewish culture, history and Yiddish literature after school and on weekends, eventually graduating with university-level degrees in Yiddish Journalism and Jewish Education. (The only other graduate at the time with both degrees, May Stein, later became his wife.)
In the late 1940s, Hartman became the first native-born Yiddish reporter for one of the four Yiddish dailies then being published in New York. Long before the Civil Rights Movement, he penned a major series of articles titled “Two Weeks in the Harlem Ghetto.” Years later, when Martin Luther King Jr. saw a reprint of an article Hartman had written about segregation for the magazine Jewish Currents, King asked to meet and they had breakfast together.
Hartman went on to serve as principal of a secular Jewish Sunday school on Long Island before moving to Los Angeles in 1964, but he struggled to find a good secular Jewish school in Los Angeles for his two young daughters.
Then the Sholem Educational Institute (as it was then known) asked him to lecture on Yiddish literature. In 1967 he became principal of Sholem, overseeing about 100 students in grades 1 to 10.
One of Hartman’s most appreciated innovations is Sholem’s secular bar/bas mitsve program, originally a dramatic presentation performed by the entire coed graduating class of 13 and 14 year olds. In response to concerns by some members that having a ceremony was acceding to religious tradition, it is now optional and preparation takes place outside of school hours.
Rather than memorizing a portion of the Torah, students select a topic “connected to their Jewish heritage, in one way or another,” he said, and present it in whatever form they choose.
There have been musical compositions, dance performances, films and videos, but most of the young people have chosen to write and present a paper. Topics have ranged from a comparison of Holocaust movies to Jewish involvement in the anti-apartheid movement. One student’s study of Jewish cooperative housing developments in the Bronx was even published in a major architectural magazine.
The ceremony concludes with family members presenting “non-material gifts” — heartfelt wishes and promises.
Parents were initially concerned that friends and relatives wouldn’t consider the secular bar mitsve to be “a real bar mitzvah,” Hartman recalled, “but afterwards they told me it was the best they’d ever attended.”
Sholem’s next bar/bas mitsve ceremonies happen Saturday, May 28, and are open to attend with RSVP.
Hartman and fellow Sholem leader Jeffrey Kaye have also developed non-religious observances for many Jewish holidays, including a secular family Haggadah (the text read at Passover) used during the organization’s annual communal Seder.
“The concept of adapting holiday observances to meet current needs is a thread throughout Jewish history,” said Hartman.
Hartman is quick to point out inconsistencies in the Bible/Torah and of some true believers — such as those who preach against homosexuality “while committing the equally condemned sin of wearing a blended wool and linen suit,” he says.
He also teaches that the lack of archeological evidence of the enslavement and liberation of
the Jews from Egypt does not infringe on the value of that story.
“Stories do not have to be factual to be meaningful. At Sholem we recognize the Exodus story has inspired hundreds of generations to cherish the concept of freedom,” he said, offering the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising on the eve of Passover as an example.
Hartman currently spends most of his time as a Yiddish-to-English translator. He’s translated hundreds of letters given to him by people who want to read and preserve precious family documents. He also translates the poetry of local Yiddish writers and is working with a UCLA project to map Jewish Los Angeles.
A lifelong progressive, Hartman is actively involved with numerous nonprofit organizations, including the So Cal Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle, Yiddishkayt, People for the American Way, Democratic Socialists of America (“Bernie is not a member,” he says) and Bend the Arc.
“Secular Jews have a history of support for social justice and progressive causes,” he notes.
Whereas some traditional Jews discourage intermarriage, Hartman has a much different take.
“At Sholem we don’t merely accept intercultural families. We don’t merely welcome them. We celebrate the diversity they bring to our community,” he said.
The author is a Sholem Community member and volunteer. Sholem meets Sundays during the school year from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Westside Neighborhood School, 5401 Beethoven St., Del Rey. For more information about the Sholem Community, visit sholem.org.